Please stop looking for the ‘original sin’ gene

Think Christian has been running a mini-forum on the question of a “historical Adam.”

Dennis Venema’s contribution was quite helpful for squarely stating that science finds the idea of a single “Adam and Eve” couple as the ancestors of all of humanity to be extremely, and increasingly, unlikely.

I liked Venema’s piece a lot, particularly this bit:

Some Christian groups are beginning to require denying these findings as part of their theology. In particular, there is a concern that moving away from the view that the entire human race descends from one ancestral couple threatens the doctrine of original sin. … These sorts of moves put scientifically knowledgeable believers in such groups in a difficult position – do they deny the science to remain theologically “on side,” or do they risk membership in their faith communities by accepting the science?

As the information coming out of the various genome-sequencing projects trickles down to the pew level, these difficulties are only going to increase.

That’s wise and true. But I’d go further to argue that those insisting on a “historical Adam” are not “on side” theologically, either.

Show me someone who thinks Genesis teaches a “historical Adam” and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t understand Genesis — the genre of it, the title of it, or anything else about it.

Once upon a time a man named mankind was the father of the human race even though he only had three sons despite living to be 930 years old.

If I seriously have to explain to you that this does not constitute a historical claim, then sit down, because we’re apparently also going to have to talk about how Frodo, Miss Marple, Ulysses, Cuchulain, and Amelia Bedelia are not historical figures either.

But what baffles me completely is this bit from Deborah Haarsma’s concluding post in the Think Christian series:

This scientific picture of a group of early humans raises many questions, including particularly difficult ones related to the Fall. Plantinga and pastor Daniel Harrell both suggest a possible solution: perhaps Adam and Eve were two individuals within the group of early humans. This would preserve Adam as a real historical figure and the Fall as a real historical event. However, the spread of sin to the rest of the group is problematic, since it would take many generations to spread genetically through a population of thousands.

Wait, sorry … for a second there I thought she said that sin spreads “genetically.” (Rubs eyes.) Let me read that again:

However, the spread of sin to the rest of the group is problematic, since it would take many generations to spread genetically through a population of thousands.

OK, yeah, she really said that.

You’ve got to hand it to Augustine. Anybody can be a little wrong once in a while, but to be so spectacularly wrong that 1,500 years later people are still saying stuff like this … well, that’s impressive.

I appreciate the concern and the intent of stuff like this, but I think it’s possible to make sense of the book of Romans without resorting to hallucinogenic science and delirious theology that ponders the “genetic” spread of sin.

We can only make sense out of the idea that sin is “genetic” if we’re also willing to make nonsense out of the ideas of justice, mercy, redemption, atonement, and forgiveness. And I’m rather fond of those. So please, let’s stop looking for an “original sin” gene, thanks.

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  • Wait, Amelia Bedilia isn’t real?  Childhood = ruined.

  •  Same here. Cuchulain was one of my heroes.

  • GDwarf

    Huh. Genetic sin. That’s…I want to say that’s new, but somehow I suspect it isn’t.

    Of course, this raises so many interesting possibilities! Viruses that inject sin into infected cells! Viruses that remove sin! What happens if a cell mutates to be sin-free? Could that lead to you going to hell while your cancer goes to heaven? Does radiation erase sin? Can we screen for sin at conception now, to breed a race of sin-free beings? What happens if there’s a copying error in the sin section of someone’s genome and they end up with two sin segments? What, exactly, is the selection pressure in favour of sin? What happens if a microbe steals some of your DNA (it happens surprisingly often, as does the reverse, much of human DNA has been taken from bacteria), does it become a fallen bacteria? Does that grant it intelligence as well?

    Man, I could write a library of sci-fi about this…

  • MaryKaye

    I can’t help thinking of the bit at the end of _Chimpanzee Politics_ where the author says, “I have never since been able to look at Yeroen without thinking, ‘This is a murderer’.”  (Yeroen and an ally suddenly killed the dominant male one winter, when they were confined closely.)

    I don’t know if Yeroen did wrong by chimpanzee standards, but I would certainly be willing to consider that he did.  A lot of animals are probably pretty amoral but I’m not at all sure chimps are, or the other highly intelligent social animals like elephants.  (Of course, solitary animals might have their own morality that I, as a highly social animal, simply can’t understand or recognize.  I don’t know how we could find out.)

    In other words, I don’t think we got the knowledge of right and wrong from a human ancestor; I think it’s been around a while.  It’s just gotten a lot more complex as our brains complexified.

  • Worthless Beast

    I now want to go to a desert and sift through the sands for a few grains of Love. 

  • reynard61

    “Huh. Genetic sin. That’s…I want to say new, but somehow I suspect it isn’t.”

    It’s not. In the last century it went by another name. Old whine in a new bottle…

  • badJim

    Get in line in that processional
    Step into that small confessional
    There the guy who’s got religion’ll
    Tell you if your sin’s original.

  • flat

    if sin is genetic or not, I do in part agree with the diagnosis Doctor Cox made about people.

    Dr. Perry Cox: Lady. People aren’t chocolates. Do you know what they are mostly? Bastards. Bastard coated bastards with bastard filling. But I don’t find them half as annoying as I find naive bubble-headed optimists who walk around vomiting sunshine.

  • AnonaMiss

    There was an idea I heard in my childhood, from friends at a sleepover, that original sin was transmitted to each new generation by virtue of us being conceived through sinful icky SEX!!; and that Jesus escaped having original sin because he was conceived without SEX!!!.

    Compared to that, the idea of original sin being transmitted genetically seems liberal and refreshing.

  • Baby_Raptor

    That doesn’t make any sense, because sex wasn’t connected in any way to the Fall? Unless “eating the apple” is a huge metaphor…

  • Am I the only one thinking we should roll with this?

    “Yeah, we’re totally using all that RTC-donor money in genetic research to cure Sin. Oh damn, it turns out the way we were doing it led to curing Down’s Syndrome instead. Must’ve been the 4th time something like that happened. Oh well, keep the money coming, with enough research we must find the cure for Sin eventually.”

  • Aiwhelan

    A scary number of adults think this way too.

  • vsm

    Wouldn’t that make IVF babies free of original sin?

  • AnonaMiss

    Maybe if the sperm was collected by needle instead of the ICKY!! way.

    Interestingly, the girl I heard this story from was Catholic. I’m sure this isn’t the official Catholic position, but if it were, it would put a cynical spin on their IVF ban, eh?

  • Carstonio

    Venema mentions Mitochondrial Eve. I suppose original sin would work metaphorically with that theory if one postulates that she was far more immoral than the rest of her tribe.

  •  Yeah, I’ve heard this equation a lot. My favorite take is a joke-prayer my husband tells me is popular in Brazil: “Oh Virgin Mary, who conceived without sinning, help me sin without conceiving!”

  • WAIT.  New Dan Brown novel; the humans from that original tribe of hominins that DIDN’T get the Sin Gene.  Or the “recessive” Sin Gene in Jesus.  Yesssssssss.

  • christopher_y

    There was an idea I heard in my childhood, from friends at a sleepover, that original sin was transmitted to each new generation by virtue of us being conceived through sinful icky SEX!!

    That is, or was back in the days when I had more contact with Sunday school teachers, a fairly common view, which I think derived from the idea that the story of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was some kind of metaphor for them having a bit of the old rumpy-pumpy (I suppose it would have been quite new rumpy-pumpy at the time). Even as a kid I thought that that was stretching metaphor a bit further than it was happy to be stretched, but a lot of people seemed to be OK with the idea. Maybe it cropped up in some book of pop theology from the Victorian era.

    Another version that’s out there, which I suppose is quite close to an “original sin gene”, is that sin derives from instinctive animal behaviour, which we have inherited from our australopithecine ancestors, but ought to be able to overcome with our fine big human minds, because God doesn’t want us to be apes. I’m not going to waste Fred’s bandwidth listing all the ways that’s wrong, even from a theist perspective, but it’s an idea that’s definitely around. I suspect this one originally derives from people trying to Christianise Darwin’s famous comment: “Plato says in Phaedo that our ‘imaginary ideas’ arise from the preexistence of the soul, and are not derivable from experience—read monkeys for preexistence.”

  • Haarsma writes: “perhaps Adam and Eve were two individuals within the group of early humans.”

    This would only resolve the scientific issues if the wider group contained reproducing females. So what to make of Genesis 3:20 And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.?

  • Carstonio

    Heh. The big flaw with that concept is that sexual reproduction existed before humans. Creationists insist that all animals ate plants before the Fall, so I can easily imagine Duane Gish claiming that the animals didn’t reproduce either. If he hasn’t make that claim already.

  • I’m not at all surprised that sin as genetic would be a rising idea in Christian circles. Personally, I think that Original Sin is passed from parent to child in the form of crappy parenting. You believe that there’s something inherently wrong with your kid and respond to normal childish behavior as a sign of this inherent sin and viola – another generation gains its sinful disposition. Which could also be how Jesus was born without Original Sin – his mother was told he would be perfect before he was born. Or it could be genetic. O_o

  • I can only imagine that the genetic result of freedom from original sin would be something like J. Alfred Prufrock, a man so afraid to disturb the universe that he dare not eat a peach

  • There is an Alistair MacLean novel about a killer disease called The Satan Bug, but the name of the title virus is purely metaphorical.

  • histrogeek

    Bad ideas never die; they just keep reappear with very variation. Gnostics, Bougmils, Cathars, Shakers, all pushed something like teh sex transmits teh sin from parents to children. And they didn’t even need Augustine to come up with that.  

  • The_L1985

     A lot of Christians over the centuries have connected the two.  Paradise Lost has a scene in which the newly-fallen Adam and Eve suddenly develop lust and act on it, then feel remorse and do the whole fig-leaf thing.

  • The_L1985

     It isn’t, but there’s another bizarre bit of Catholic theology that comes to play:  the Immaculate Conception.  Basically, the idea is that since Jesus couldn’t gestate within a sinful vessel, the Virgin Mary must have been conceived free of original sin.  Somehow.

    One often gets the feeling that the medieval church had the mindset of, “The Bible doesn’t say anything about the subject, and we don’t know–fuck it, let’s just make something up that sounds right!  The laity will never know the difference!”

  • The_L1985

     I hate to tell you this, but Oberon Zell beat you to it.

  • Keep it under your hat, but I kind of get the feeling Paul was making it up as he went along, too

  • The_L1985

    How about if all the people who weren’t descended from Eve died at some point?  There is that whole flood thing with Noah, remember.

  • Once upon a time a man named mankind was the father of the human race
    even though he only had three sons despite living to be 930 years old.

    Also, too, somebody ought to point out that, “And then mankind mated with Neanderthals and about ten percent of the genetic structure of modern humans comes from there,” really, really doesn’t fit into any of those neat little narratives.  Kinda wrecks ’em, in fact.

  • AnonymousSam

    Why else do you think they call IVF “playing God”? :p

  • Vermic

    Man, I could write a library of sci-fi about this…

    Gonna have to stop you right here, before you reinvent midichlorians.

  • … and horcruxes are reinventions of eldritch soul containers. So what?

  • AnonaMiss

    Creationists insist that all animals ate plants before the Fall, so I can easily imagine Duane Gish claiming that the animals didn’t reproduce either.

    Well it stands to reason. Before Death, reproduction would just have gotten in the way/overcrowded the garden.

  • AnonymousSam

    I always heard it was because Matthew and Luke mistranslated the Hebrew almah, which doesn’t necessarily mean “virgin.” Paul doesn’t reference Mary’s virginity at all. Then again, some sections of the Pauline epistles refer to Jesus as if he were a hypothetical messiah who hadn’t yet come, so… yeah.

  • Carstonio

    The thread title gave me the earworm of the Eurythmics’ “Missionary Man.”

    What didn’t you like about midichlorians? (Other than the fact that the name sounds like keyboard synthesizers for playing brainwashing music.) The concept to me sounded anti-egalitarian, going against the idea that anyone could become a Jedi with the right commitment and training. I’ve heard from other fans who see the mysticism of the original Force concept as out of place.

  • Carstonio

    Maybe the fig leaves were necessary because after eating the fruit, Adam and Eve grew genitals and so did the animals.

  • Green Eggs and Ham

     Ah, but it’s more complicated than that.  St. Anne (the name given to Mary’s mother) would also have to have been born by immaculate conception to be a pure vessel herself.  And so would her mother. And her mother; all the way back to Eve.

  • histrogeek

     I’ve mentioned that to Catholics (who wouldn’t clout me for it), and they pretty roll their eyes. If I understand it correctly (and IC is not remotely a doctrine I buy into), the “perfect vessel” was only necessary for Jesus, the actual Godhead, so St. Anne was not immaculate, and Mary wasn’t born of a virgin.

  • histrogeek

     Maybe the Neanderthals are where Cain’s wife came from, solving one mystery those nasty pedantic skeptics raise [sarcasm]. Of course geography gets screwy since Neanderthals were almost entirely in Europe so they couldn’t have been “east of Eden” (as if that was the only problem with this pseudo-hypothesis), unless we go full-bore stupid, mix mythologies, and call Atlantis Eden. 

  • It is the gene for whether or not a Calvinist God has decided whether you get to go to heaven or not!

    The genome of the 144,000!

  • Vermic

    What didn’t you like about midichlorians?

    I’ve always regarded the Force as purely mystical, and I think the original trilogy did too, so Lucas’ sudden need to “explain” it as little dealies in the bloodstream makes me scratch my head.  And I dislike ysalamiri, those anti-Force sloths, for the same reason (and still more for what a transparent plot device they are).  These elements remind me of genetically-spreading sin because they are all attempts to yoke to science a concept which is meant to transcend quantification and physical origins.

    That said, I know that some fans like midichlorians.  Just putting my own reasons out there.

  • christopher_y

    Neanderthals were almost entirely in Europe so they couldn’t have been “east of Eden”

    They’ve found Neanderthals in Israel (Kebara), Iraqi Kurdistan (Shanidar) and Iran (Bisitun). Pick your site, depending on where you want to put the garden of Eden. And of course there were Denisovans somewhere – only known from Siberia so far – who also interbred with modern humans.
    Plenty of opportunity to let your imagination run riot there.

  • vsm

    The concept to me sounded anti-egalitarian, going against the idea that
    anyone could become a Jedi with the right commitment and training.

    I don’t think that idea ever appears in the original trilogy. According to it, some people just happen to be more special than others and can wield demigod-like powers after what appears to be a three-week course. It’s even implied to be genetic, which is why I don’t really get the objection to midichlorians.

  • AnonymousSam

    Magic is often implied to be genetic too.

    My objection can be summarized as having an inherent dislike of DoingInTheWizard. Sometimes I’d rather have no explanation than one which strives to be scientific and arrives just as contrived and desperately handwaving at itself in an effort to seem perfectly natural.

    A particular character of Metal Gear Solid 2 and 4 also comes to mind.

    Okay, we have a Romanian with fangs who can run on water, run straight vertical, hypnotize with a glance, paralyze by striking at somebody’s shadow, seemingly cannot be killed or drowned, has a lower than natural body temperature and who drinks blood.

    Codename: Vamp

    Because he’s bisexual, athletic, a practiced hypnotist and injected up the wazoo with nanomachines which rapidly regenerate tissue damage.

    What? You thought it was because he was a vampire? “No, there’s no such thing as vampires,” says the protagonist who lives in a series with ghosts, telepathy, telekinesis and shamanistic powers.

    That’s Doing in the Wizard.

  • Dmoore970

    The fig leaf business seems to suggest that sex was the result, rather than the cause, of the Fall.

  • Dmoore970

    What bothered me was that in the first three movies, it is implied (though never expressly stated) that Jedi-dom is to some degree hereditary.  In Phantom Menace we find out that it is hereditary, in midichlorians.  And then in the next movie, we find out that Jedis aren’t allowed to reproduce.


  • Ygorbla

    The weirdest thing about this is what they’re concerned with.  I can understand a Christian being worried about losing the concept of a historical Adam — I mean, the Bible does say that there was this guy named Adam, etc.

    But they’re not concerned about that!  They’re concerned that by losing a historical Adam (which the Bible does at least talk about) they’ll lose this concept of original sin, which isn’t in the Bible at all, in any way shape or form, not even in a pedantic let’s-take-all-the-parables-exactly-literally way.

    I think it’s telling that so-called literalists are more worried about losing the tenacious chain of interpretation that leads to Original Sin than they are at losing the literally-named Adam.

  • histrogeek

    Eden is described in Genesis as very loosely being in Mesopotamia, unless of course we want to claim (and why not?) that actually Genesis is referring to others rivers named Tigris and Euphrates, not the rivers currently referred to by those names.
    Although this is just an instance of fictional world-building, Biblical names can cause confusion because the modern place name refers to somewhere different from the ancient one. Biblical Ethiopia, right up to Acts, is referring to modern Sudan not the country in the Horn of Africa (which in classical geographies is called Abyssinia).

  • vsm

    I guess I just thought that if force sensitivity is genetic, it should also be observable via scientific instruments. I’m probably the wrong person to talk about this, since, as I recently realized, I don’t actually like Star Wars.

    As for everything related to MGS, I just put it under Kojima being a master troll/true artist.